Tamara Dewell has helped shape the look of some of the most notable films and television series of the past 20 years. From her early work as an art director on Bryan Singer’s X-Men and Degrassi: The Next Generation to her current role as production designer on Star Trek: Discovery, Dewell has shown versatility in her field that is both rare and impressive.
Her latest project, Nightmare Alley, is a bit of a departure from her previous work. Leaving behind the futuristic spaceships of Discovery and the polished boardrooms of Suits, Dewell incorporated a variety of different looks and aesthetics from the 1930s — Art Deco, Art Noveau, the paintings of Edward Hopper — to bring to life Guillermo del Toro’s noirish vision of Depression-era carnies, con men, and criminals. For her effort, Dewell was nominated for an Academy Award for her outstanding work, and she sat down with Digital Trends to talk about what it’s like collaborating with del Toro, the challenges of doing both a period piece and a genre film, and how sets can reflect the interior lives of the characters that occupy them.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity purposes.
Digital Trends: How did you become involved with Nightmare Alley?
Tamara Dewell: I have a history with Guillermo. I worked with him on Mimic when I was working as an art director for Carol Speer. And that was twentysomething years ago. We got to know each other then and then I worked with him on The Strain, which … I worked on for four long, wonderful years. And then Guillermo wanted to work with me on other stuff in the past and our paths just never crossed. And then finally, he just called me on a backlot where we were working on two different shows and said, “Listen[I] want you to do [my] next project.”
Did you go back to the original 1947 film or the novel by Lindsay Gersham for inspiration in conceiving the film sets?
Yes, I went back to both. Guillermo urged all of his department heads [myself, Dan Laustsen (the film’s director of photography) and Luis Sequeira, our costume designer] to look at it but not get too much into the actual film. We’re making something of our own creation. But it was good to watch the film and read the novel, which of course, has a lot more depth to it then what you get in the original movie. So I read the novel and watched the original and then kind of left them behind. Guillermo’s making his film and he’s an artist with his own style. So I really wanted to focus on instilling Guillermo’s vision into the film.
What was the collaborative process like with Guillermo on this film?
He’s a director you want to share everything with because he responds and is responsive and he’s responsible. And even if he’s not going to like something I’m about to show him, I’ll show it anyway just to get into his mind a little bit more, even if I know I’ve not hit it right, because sometimes it starts a conversation with Guillermo where it can lead to other things. He’s such a collaborator since he’s not the bossy boss or says, “It’s my way or the highway.” You can bring things to the table. He sets the bar high, and then he helps us all get up to that bar, you know?
One set that stands out to me as particularly striking is the carnival set seen in the first part of the film. What went into creating that? It’s both realistic to the time period and also very surreal.
We wanted to make it look realistic and did a lot of research. We got some color images through the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian that were very exciting because there weren’t that many in back in the ’30s to give us an idea of what a carnival looked like back then. Once we figured out the overall carnival feel and flair, we could really delve into the iconography of not just the carnival, but also the Depression period and the dusty streets of the Midwest that are seen in the film.
Then we started to embellish it with sort of what I call the “del Toro vision” with attention to circle motifs like the Geek Pit and in the funhouse. The funhouse itself was something that Guillermo developed with his long-standing concept illustrator, Guy Davis. They developed some initial looks that I could then take from and draw from and sculpt from, and it was all handcrafted. We also found some existing old mirrors that we redecorated, but most of the carnival set was just created from our healthy imaginations.
The funhouse had all this deeper meaning like sin and man and the journey Stan is taking [in the film]. He’s already trapped by his inherent evil and aggressiveness. His fear of the Geek, who he eventually becomes by the end, was part of the whole motif in the funhouse. We had the Seven Deadly Sins and the Devil and Purgatory. Originally, we had Heaven, but there wasn’t enough room for Heaven. So yeah, Heaven wasn’t so interesting. [Laughs] We kind of got rid of it to focus more on Stan’s sin and the whole sin of mankind.
In Nightmare Alley, the sets served as a reflection of the character or characters who moved within them, which you don’t normally see in modern American film. With Lilith’s office, it seemed very orderly, very controlled, just like her, but also very inviting. You can understand why Stan is drawn to her. It seemed very feminine in a way without being obvious about it. How did you conceive of that particular set?
As a woman, I was trying to approach it from a place of femininity, but also [portraying Lilith] as a strong woman in that era, which she was. And I couldn’t help myself envisioning Cate Blanchett and seeing the costumes that Luis was putting her in. I admire her so much as an actress, and she came in early on and got a preview of the office, which was really exciting and she was super-pumped about it. We intentionally chose wood as I wanted to veer away from the cold office look with just plaster walls.
Shane [Vieau], our decorator, did an amazing job finding actual furniture from the period. Some we custom-built, some we reupholstered. We built the couch that [Stan and Lilith] are on from reference that Shane found. We had about 50,000 meetings about carpeting and whether we were going for carpeting or marble floor. And finally, we ended up with a marble floor. It was really a collaboration with all of us coming together. Guillermo would come in and say, “Let’s make it a little more feminine, let’s add an arch.” We already had these curved walls. We were adding curved walls with arches, and it was an incredibly complicated set to build.
It paid off. I was really impressed with just how well it’s constructed and how it reflected Lilly’s character. In the second half of the film, you seem to draw heavily on the Art Deco look that was popular at the time, both in Lilith’s office and in the Copacabana club where Stan performs his act, among other places. Did you look at other films, architecture, or art from the 1930s as a reference?
I looked at those 1930s movies done by Cedric Gibbons, a production designer who used big Art Deco sets that are not at all real-looking, but look spectacular. That had an influence on me. But I also did a lot of research. We had the good fortune of spending a lot of time in Buffalo [New York]. There are some great Art Deco buildings in Buffalo that, even though we didn’t end up shooting there, at least I was looking at them and walking through them with Guillermo. There were tile flooring and phone booths that we were reacting to. That was a great resource for us to have actual Art Deco areas to look at [for later reference].
Toronto, the film’s primary shooting location, was also a great resource. Take the Copacabana Club; it’s a beautifully restored Art Deco venue. I came up with this idea of putting the actors on a series of risers to bring them up to this gorgeous ceiling so we could see it [in the shot]. And we added a lot of sculpted pieces in front of lights. We made these Art Deco lamps, these lady figures holding these lighting sources. We worked closely with Dan about the lighting for that scene. Each table lamp was a source light for him. That’s how he was lighting Cate and all the rest of the people in the audience.
For Ezra Grindell’s factory, that’s another Art Deco gem. It’s actually a wate- filtration plant in Toronto, which we had also used in Mimic. When I read the script, Guillermo and I both knew without even talking to each other that we were going to that place. We weren’t sure what angle and how we were going to dress it and change it, but we definitely knew without any conversation that we were going to go to that water-filtration plant, which is called the R.C. Harris Water Filtration Plant.
We were able to get in there and then we did a fair bit of building in that once [the characters] go inside. But the exterior was pretty much as is; we just added some VFX graphics to show the fictional name of the factory. There’s a scene where Stan goes down the long hall and into Ezra’s office, which was a build, a very particular build, and that’s where you really see the Art Deco influence with the marble and the bronze. Rockefeller Center and the Capitol [Records] Building in L.A. [are among] the references [we used in that scene]. It was incredibly made up, that space. It was really designed for those specific wide shots that you see of Stan sitting alone in that chair. And to create a space where there’s no furniture is really difficult. It’s very challenging to get it right. But I think we did it justice.
I’m glad you mentioned Ezra Grindell. I loved his mansion and, in particular, his maze-like garden that plays a prominent role at the end. How did you find that location and what did you have to do to modify it, if anything, for the film?
That was a location that I had known about. It’s in a small town outside of Toronto called Oshawa, and it’s a historic building. The garden is pretty much there with the house. We put the house there by VFX. That was one of the first illustrations I did for the film. I just photoshopped the house scene where I wanted it to be at the end of the garden. We basically scanned the house and dropped it into the right spot for us.
The garden has a little building at the end of it where the climactic scenes take place. That building is kind of like an ice cream shack. [Laughs] It’s a really simple building that we embellished by creating a sculpted mausoleum-type piece inside. We also sculpted frieze along the top. So that was most of our work. And then we added gates, and the whole back alley where the chase scene takes place was built on location and in the backlot close to the studio because there’s so much technical stunt work for something like that.
As for the garden, we put a few trees in, but it’s this English-style garden that we dressed with fake snow. It eventually snowed on top of our snow and then it melted. We were either taking snow away or putting snow on to keep it at the right level. We shot there a bunch of different times as we kept coming back [to shoot more scenes]. It was a really complicated sequence in the garden, technically and lighting-wise and emotionally for the actors.
It’s heartening to find out that the garden actually exists as is. So, if any Nightmare Alley fans want to reenact the last scene, they can do it. I don’t know why they would, but they can if they want to.
You can visit and get married in the garden. It’s a very different look in the summer. We were lucky because we were shooting it in the winter, so we owned that garden. We were able to leave our snow blankets and our set dressing there without interfering with this historic house that in the summer is [jammed with] back-to-back weddings and visitors and events full of tents and pretty flowers.
You can check out Dewell’s outstanding work on Nightmare Alley by streaming the film on HBO Max or Hulu.